[Fine Fabric Delegates]
Reports of the demise of New York rap are greatly exaggerated. Heavyweights like Nas and Mobb Deep came back in rare form this year, and the city’s underground is positively brimming with talent, from the absurdist rabblerousers in Das Racist to neo-traditionalists like Mr. Muthafuckin eXquire, A$AP Rocky, and Action Bronson. In a group that includes reformed drug dealers and retired corporate headhunters, Bronson might actually be the strangest: a pudgy, affable sometime chef of Albanian descent with an urgent, nasal delivery reminiscent of Wu-Tang veteran Ghostface Killah. On Dr. Lecter, his debut album, Bronson showcases a limber flow informed by legends like Raekwon and Kool G. Rap and a fantastic ear for swinging, soulful beats, all of which were provided by producer Tommy Mas. Bronson races through a lightning quick set populated by tales of wild sexcapades and heists gone wrong, each one packed with vivid imagery, madcap energy, and suitably elaborate food metaphors in equal measure. With Dr. Lecter, Bronson, Mas, and guests like Maffew Ragazino and Meyhem Lauren have crafted an earnest love letter to the freewheeling youth of New York’s rap scene. They just don’t make records like this anymore.
– Craig Jenkins
You Are All I See
Though Pat Grossi’s 2010 EP, Curtis Lane, there were hints of the brilliant pop craft that was to come, the magnitude of this followup record was quite unexpected. Aside from making what might have been the best R n’ B song of the year (“Playing House”) in a year that saw a revival of the form, Grossi’s proved to have a truly original songwriting voice. Despite comparisons to downtempo contemporaries like James Blake, Grossi’s stunning harp-laden compositions remain something truly beautiful and visionary in an era where it is exceedingly hard to do such things. Whether putting forth tracks like the choir based slow build of “See Thru Eyes” or the melancholic “Way Too Fast”, You Are All I See proves to be an entirely fulfilling listening experience. After a busy CMJ week and a monthlong turn opening for M83, Grossi seems poised to capitalize on this outstanding release and move toward even bigger things.
– Colin Joyce
This year seems to have quite a number of relatively young and up-and-coming bands making an immediate impact in the indie music scene with highly impressive releases. The Montreal-based quartet, Braids, is definitely one of them. Their self-produced debut entitled Native Speaker has already gotten critical recognition as it was short-listed for the Polaris Music Prize. Having been released at the beginning of year, it’s easy for it to have flown under the radar when composing year-end lists. Many critics seem to draw comparisons to Animal Collective when discussing Braids, which is never a bad thing. However, that comparison shouldn’t define them or their sound. With Native Speaker, they have crafted a beautiful album full of swirling guitars, hollow percussion, twinkling keys, and hypnotizing vocal melodies led by vocalist/guitarist Raphaelle Standell-Preston as she sings about sexual discovery, desire, and easing into adulthood. This is an album that has the ability to take you through an ethereal experience. Essentially, this is what dream-pop is all about.
– Ace Ubas
So look, I could use this space to tell you how wonderful this album is. I could mention that “Vow” and “Flown” are both haunting and heartbreaking, or I could talk about the viscerally uplifting effect of “Prizewinning” and “Envelop.” I could try to describe Barwick’s ethereal yet indelible presence on this album, or her masterful use of loops, reverb, and spartan instrumentation. I could even attempt to tie in this album’s angelic drones to some broader statement of purpose about ambient music in 2011, and how albums like this one are working to erase the needless stigma we’ve attached to “new age” efforts since long before Enya arrived on the scene. I could mention bands this album reminds me of, like the Cocteau Twins or even the expansive, languid balladry of Galaxie 500. I could do all these things, but I won’t; instead, I encourage you to simply listen to the album yourself. Nine songs and 43 minutes later, you might feel as though you’ve been touched by an angel; the best part is that angel is always accessible, with a simple pressing of the Play button.
– Josh Becker
Bill Callahan has proved, though distinctively under the radar, to be one of the most lasting and consistently excellent artists of the last two decades. Under the Smog moniker as well as his his own name, each Callahan record has its own virtues and Apocalypse is no exception. Mostly abandoning the more ornate instrumentation of Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle as well as the near electro-funk of some of his earlier releases, Apocalypse is in many ways the most straightforward record Callahan has made in some time. In this regard, it is more in tune with recent Cass McCombs and Bonnie “Prince” Billy records than anything Beck, a touchstone of his earlier work, has produced. Simplifying his approach allowed Callahan to focus on doing what he does best- creating immaculately conceived mood pieces, complete with evocative lyrics and his unique voice, always maintaining a perfect balancing act between comforting and intimidating. In this regard, Callahan most resembles The National’s Matt Berninger, though the comparison likely begins and ends there. While Apocalypse might not become known as the finest record Callahan has ever produced, tracks such as the blistering “Drover,” and the wistful “Riding For the Feeling” easily rank among his best ever. There appears to be no end in sight for Callahan and this fact is as worth celebrating as Apocalypse is in and of itself.
– Ricky Schweitzer
[Enemies List Home Recordings]
Condensing Giles Corey into two hundred words isn’t easy, and that’s not just because it’s a personal favourite of mine and thus could talk about it for many, many paragraphs. It’s an album full of so much source material and emotional depth that it can always feel like you’re only just ever scratching the surface. But delving into Daniel Barrett’s own personal grief isn’t an instantly appealing journey, and that’s because he sounds so lost and hopeless for the majority of the time. On “Empty Churches” he sounds like he’s dissecting every bit of EVP he can find, just in an attempt to locate someone, or some kind of answer to his deeply depressing question about whether he wants to continue living. Elsewhere, on “Grave Filled With Books,” he sounds totally content when he sings “I’m not the only one that you’ve never loved,” like he knows as a fact that there is no hope from any human ever. And that dread and sorrow runs through the majority of the album’s runtime, making Giles Corey a deeply affecting personal statement but also a deeply memorable album that seeps into your own emotional state.
– Ray Finlayson
As his releases pile up in very, very short order, Curren$y’s taste and sense of timing are turning out to be among the strongest of any rapper currently in the game. Released on the New Orleans native’s holiest of days, Covert Coup is just about everything that a mixtape needs to be. Clocking in at just under 28 minutes, there’s no bloat or overindulgence, and each of the ten tracks serves a purpose. It’s really more of a teaser than anything else, whizzing by with a high degree of efficiency. It’s also the beneficiary of some top-notch production and a series of killer guest spots (the appearances by Fiend and Freddie Gibbs are standouts), and the one-two punch of “Smoke Break” and “Scottie Pippens” is as good as any free hip hop release has had this year. Curren$y slips in his share of boasts, but there’s a pervasive tongue-in-cheek playfulness that prevents you from taking him too seriously. You get the sense that he really doesn’t either. The end result is a highly listenable, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it effort with a surprising amount of replay value.
– Brendan Frank
Punk and rap have always made strange bedfellows. Both share a bleeding heart intensity and a razor-sharp singularity of purpose but precious little else. As such, for every group that successfully fused the genres (like the Beastie Boys, whose 90s output was littered with spastic bouts of outright hardcore), there exists an equally spirited failure. For every Body Count, there’s a Hed PE. This is what makes Death Grips’ debut “mixtape” Exmilitary such a revelation. The Sacramento-based trio of vocalist MC Ride, producer Flatlander, and avant garde drum legend Zach Hill have delivered a stir fry of seemingly disparate genres here that just inexplicably gels. Ride’s vocals (try and imagine Wu-Tang Clan architect RZA moonlighting as a manic, unhinged carnival barker) are searing half-rapped, half-screamed diatribes that sound completely at home in every setting, holding court with outre production that employs hyperactive percussion, samples ranging from Black Flag to Link Wray to Mogwai, and all manner of squelching, unorthodox electronic noise. Bleak and uncompromising in sound as well as subject matter, Exmilitary sounds like nothing else released this year.
– Craig Jenkins
What sets Odd Future’s Frank Ocean apart from the R&B pack is how utterly unconcerned he is with proving his technical vocal prowess. There are no outsized runs on his self-released debut, Nostalgia, Ultra. A great deal of care was put into every one of these arrangements, but Ocean pulls off the rare feat of crafting his songs so perfectly that they come off as effortless, almost nonchalant in their brilliance. His high-profile guest appearances on Goblin and Watch the Throne have put him on the map as a hook man, but Ocean’s own album proves the 23-year-old to be an astonishingly mature balladeer.
– Sean Highkin
[What’s Your Rupture? / Escho]
This year saw punk aficionados Fucked Up release David Comes To Life, an hour-long, four-act, thinking man’s hardcore punk rock opera with a plot so Byzantine and Labyrinthine that it seems like a lyric sheet and a graduate degree in comparative literature are required to fully appreciate its genius. On the opposite extreme of the punk spectrum this year, we find Fucked Up’s former tourmates, plucky punk newcomers Iceage. This year these teenagers released New Brigade: in every way the antithesis to David Comes To Life. Its 24 minutes make it one of the breeziest listens of the year, each song rolling by at unpredictable speed. Songs start, speed up, stop suddenly, and speed up again. Before you know it you’re at the end of closer “You’re Blessed” and you feel like getting that comparative literature degree might have been a waste of time. You’re still going to need that lyric sheet, though, as lead singer Elias Ronnenfelt belts out double-tracked syllables with a distinctly Scandinavian drawl. Pop and rock tropes abound in this peculiar little gem of a punk album, such as in the choruses of standouts “Remember” and “Broken Bone,” the former another particular class of songs that calls upon the listener to do what the title says, and the latter a venue-crashing, fist-pumping sing along that’s sure to make crowds go wild.
– Harrison Suits Baer